Reviews of Recent Chapbooks by Louise Warren, Carole Bromley, Martyn Crucefix and Mike Barlow


Louise Warren: John DustCarole Bromley: Sodium 136 • Martyn Crucefix:Cargo of Limbs • Mike Barlow Some Kind of Ghost



Louise Warren’s John Dust, reviewd by Neil Elder

John Dust by Louise Warren, illustrated by John Duffin. V Press. £6.50. ISBN 978-1-9165052-8-5

John Dust arrives in the first poem as follows:

John Dust
pushes through hedgerow
caved in, busted,
John Dust narrow as a pipe, face like a claybowl

And so this figure emerges, becoming something real and identifiable but also something beyond reality, a mythical figure that haunts the liminal space of the Somerset Levels where the work is set. Indeed, so authentic and richly imagined is the character of John Dust that I had assumed he really was part of folklore, a figure stalking the South-West for generations. In fact the character is Louise Warren’s own invention and it is the realisation of this character that gives the pamphlet licence to dazzle, with inventive imagery and new rung language running through the poems.

From the off, with the eponymously first poem, we have simile being stretched and then stretched again to create a sense of John Dust never being still, never fully knowable. He has a:

face like a field tuned over
face full of buttercups …
face like a millstone …
face like a battle

The character of John Dust becomes something larger than an individual; he morphs into something elemental, a part of the landscape, at once ancient and new. The landscape and marshland in particular, plays a big part in these poems, often so fully realised that you can feel the damp seeping up from the page. Titles such as ‘The Marshes’, ‘The Drowned Field’ and ‘Winter Bathroom’ create a visceral sense of where we are; think of news coverage of flooding across the Somerset Levels and you have an image of where these poems take place, but read the poems and you can feel and the damp and smell the air. It is Warren’s bold use of repetition across the poems that means they take on a layered effect, as phrases refract and reflect so making the world of John Dust seem absolutely real, though just not in any way we can quite grasp. An example of landscape evoked in a surprising way is clearly seen in ‘The Marshes’, a poem which incidentally won the Prole Laureate Competition in 2018:

You fetch each room, one by one, back to the marshes.
Plant forks and teaspoons, chairs for the heron’s nest,
propped up and broken,

the sky rusting over, smashed up with egg yolks,
water as mirror, water as leather, water as smoke, as trick,
a light under the door.

Warren can capture a mood with her observations and is able to express those feelings we might have but would struggle to articulate in any standard form. Whether it is the way “the afternoon moves heavily around the house,” or how a “tap runs a long cold evening, the colour of lead”. Here then we must also recognise that John Dust is an aspect or projection of the speaker. The poems move from third person observational into a dialogue and interaction with John Dust: “John Dust, you were with me at dawn”. This figure is part sprite, part imaginary friend and also part projection of feeling. The collective sense of these poems is something almost haunting and at times wistful, though because of the nature of John Dust he moves swiftly across a gamut of sensations.
The world which is created in these poems is one where normal rules do not apply, and this aspect is furthered in the way the language creates its own grammar. The final poem, ‘Folklore’ in which there appears to be an attempt to pin down the figure of John Dust, is a good example of this meeting of the strange and prosaic, given character by the vernacular style:

They said he spelled the Post Office back for an hour,
Mrs Trott bought a book of stamps,
when she got home nothing but leaves in her purse.
That’s for nothing.

The John Dust poems are joined by two other sections in the pamphlet, one entitled ‘The Parish Magazine’ and the other ‘Riddles’. The latter is what the title suggests – playful, teasing pieces with answers supplied a page or two on. The former, is a set of surreal reports, riffing on the sort of items that appear in parish magazines. These pieces play on the South-West dialect and certainly show a dexterity with language and imagery. I am not quite sure how the two sections sit with the tone of the John Dust pieces. I felt the world of the ‘The Parish Magazine’ might be a promising furrow that Louise Warren can expand upon elsewhere, but the eerily beguiling world of John Dust seemed diminished by being placed alongside more playful work.

The pamphlet is beautifully illustrated by John Duffin. I wonder how much discussion there was between poet and illustrator on how to present the figure of John Dust. I am one who never likes to see photographs of authors in books I’m reading, for fear that they will be a distraction. Here John Dust is fully realised, but I’m happy to say I didn’t find this got in the way of my immersion in the world of the pamphlet. If John Dust was not an actual part of Somerset folklore before Louise Warren dreamt him up, he certainly is now.

Neil Elder has been widely published. His pamphlet Codes of Conduct was a winner of the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet competition and was nominated for a Saboteur Award. He has a chapbook Being Present with Black Light Engine Room Press, and his prize winning full collection is The Space Between Us published by Cinnamon Press. Spring 2020 sees the publication of a new chapbook, And The House Watches On.

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Carole Bromley’s Sodium 136 reviewed by Maria C. McCarthy

Sodium 136 by Carole Bromley. Calder Valley Poetry. £7
ISBN: 9781916038745, £7.00. 34pp.

The meaning of Sodium 136 is not clear until we reach the poem of that title, late in Carole Bromley’s sequence. There is no mystery, however, in the title of the opening poem, ‘Benign Cyst Pressing on Optic Nerve’. In this poem we meet a cast of characters on a hospital ward – Liz, Sharon and Jean. Bromley watches, listens, waits to meet ‘the man who will drill / inside my skull.’

Bromley reads Henry James as she waits, What Maisie Knew (‘Reading Henry James in Hospital’). She feels that she is not like the others on the ward: ‘Sharon glued to Corrie’; ‘Jean flipping through Take a Break’. But there is a foreboding that she may yet become like them:

Sister trips
over the zimmer Jean parked by my bed,
tells me not to keep my frame there.
I do not have a frame, I protest.
Jean looks up from her article. Yet.

Bromley keeps her Poetry Society bag on her lap during an ‘Ambulance Ride’: ‘Take if you must this little bag of dreams;’ a line that stands alone amongst the plain language of the rest of the poem, which also pervades throughout the sequence. There is a ‘sick bowl’, discussions about the route the ambulance driver should take, the ‘bumpiness of the ride’. The banality and ordinariness of this contrasts with the near horror of what is to come: ‘When we arrive on the ward I feel lost’.

The poems are short on metaphor, indeed they sometimes slip into cliché: ‘A man walks up and down like a zombie’. Perhaps only plain language will do, only cliché can be reached for in such a situation. This is used to good effect in a found poem, ‘Leaflet’. This begins with the less-alarming : ‘You should avoid blowing your nose or sneezing / for three weeks after surgery’ and builds up to ‘Any brain operation carries a risk of death.’

There is little of the outside world as the sequence progresses. The ward is closed and contained; patients cannot recall the month of year, nor can they find the correct word to describe it. There are occasional glimpses of the outer world through a glass barrier. ‘Outside the window, rattled by a storm, / a snowdrop cracks the earth.’ (‘Ward Round’). This also marks a return to poetic language, the poet has been rattled, yet her true self is breaking through. In ‘High Dependency’, there is the joy of seeing the Humber river post-op, when Bromley’s sight had been at risk. Immediately, though, her attention returns to the ward: ‘an old man / talks all night to dead people’, Bromley measures out the day in slow and painful trips to the toilet, where her liquid intake and urine output must also be measured. The aftermath of the operation, the world of the ward are too much for those that do not inhabit it: ‘My daughter can’t look at me’ … ‘she looks at the Humber a lot.’

Returning to the idea of looking from the inside out, through the barrier of a window, Bromley remembers travelling in her father’s funeral cortege, looking at ‘the rest of the world / through glass’. In this poem, the title, ‘One Day I Started to Cry’, flows into the first line, ‘And I knew I was going to get better.’

There is no reading Henry James now. In ‘Nobody Tells Me’, as CSF drains and drips, the poet wonders

whether I am losing poems
and thoughts and bits of brain
along with the fluid.

Metaphor returns to the writing in ‘To My Cyst’, which she sees as

growing, growing
in the cramped space
between skull and brain
which I imagine
as like a crack in a tunnel
where a buddleia
tries to flourish

In ‘Visiting Time’, the poet now sees herself as like the other people on the ward, unlike in the earlier poems. ‘In here everyone talks to the dead’; this now includes the poet, who talks her mother, a regret for not allowing her ‘the dressed / crab that awful lunchtime.’ A meal that turned out to be her mother’s last.

‘Sodium 136’ is the number that her sodium levels must reach before Bromley can leave the ward. Her fluid is severely restricted until it does so. We see again the use of plain language, this time to express the sheer joy of ‘glass after ice-cold glass’ when the level has been reached and she can drink freely. The final poem, ‘Who Knew’, uses simple language; there are no startling images here. It ends : ‘Sodium 142. I’m going home.’

I am in awe of Carole Bromley’s to process this terrifying experience into art, and in a relatively short space of time after the hospital stay. In reply to the note sent with the pamphlet by the editor, I did ‘enjoy this moving sequence’, and highly recommend it.

Maria C. McCarthy has published poetry, short stories and memoir. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Kent, and was the winner of the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015 for her short story, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’.

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Martyn Crucefix’s Cargo of Limbs reviewed by Emma Lee

Cargo of Limbs by Martyn Crucefix. Hercules Editions. £10. ISBN 9781916197107

Martyn Crucefix used Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid as a scaffolding for this sequence inspired in 2016 as the current refugee crisis unfolded. In Book 6, Virgil tells the story of Aneneas’ journey across the Mediterranean to found Rome where he also travels to the Underworld, meeting the ferryman Charon, to consult his dead father. He notes that Charon takes some souls and not others, later understanding that the ones not selected had not been given proper burials or were not yet buried. The narrator is a photographer giving a witness’s account initially offering reasons for those making the journey,

those sun-lit harbours
beyond risky nights
a body washed to the beach –
then gods let me file

untroubled as I’m able
to emulate a brother
sprinting the Gran Via
dodging the smacks of snipers

let me not blink
at what rises towards me
this revelation – what
happens is what’s true –

dark places of blood-
blackened water –

The “body washed to the beach” is a reminder that in 2016 Alan Kurdi’s body was washed ashore and he became a symbol of both the dangers faced by refugees and of a tragically foreshortened life. The alliterative “smacks of snipers” is not just what these refugees are fleeing from. They are also in danger of being forcibly recruited into either the army or rebel militias. The language is reportage, allowing readers to build an emotional picture of someone determined – “let me not blink” – and ready to face whatever the journey might bring. Its risks are easier to accept that the devastation left behind. There’s a later warning of the dangers of fleeing,

still bend figures swarm

to every water’s edge
mothers on their men’s
shoulders and limbs legs
of bravest heroes

of boys and half-dead girls
unmarried alone children
and young men alone
beyond their eyes

parents they’ve clung to
one last time to be buried
little left to bury

The passengers also carry emotional trauma for those they’ve left behind or lost on earlier stages of their journeys. “Alone” is repeated to underline that the children are bereft of companionship and are facing what lies ahead of them without familial support. Despite the risks, there are still more people than places available on the boats and the narrator asks,

by what moral right

does any man here let
some pass and some pushed
back into the night
no less fraught than

the cold and lethal waters
these others scrum
to risk their lives upon…

It’s an echo of Virgil describing Charon leaving some souls behind which Aeneid doesn’t understand at first. Here though the selection of those who get selected to go on the boats and those left behind seems more random and leaves those waiting to be selected at the mercy of those organising and running the boats. There’s no objective selection process and money or other inducements may influence a favourable decision. Then it’s remembered that these refugees are fighting over an unsafe passage.

“Cargo of Limbs” doesn’t offer any answers but gives witness to the refugee crisis. Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid is a useful framework to explore the implications of that witness. The neutrality of a photographer recording what they see without judgement gives the reader space to think about the wider implications, why people take such risks and the emotional journey alongside the physical one. The lack of answers is with good reason: it enables all nuances to be illustrated without dictating or steering the reader to easy conclusions.

The poems are accompanied by stills from the film “Purple Sea” directed by Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed, which with generous notes and introduction makes this a physically attractive pamphlet to have.

Emma Lee’s debut collection was Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, UK 2015), she co-edited Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge, (Five Leaves, UK, 2015), reviews for The Blue Nib, The High Window, The Journal, London Grip and Sabotage Reviews. She blogs at Her latest collection is The Significance of a Dress published by Arachne Press.

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Mike Barlow’s Some Kind of Ghost reviewed by Emma Lee

Some Kind of Ghost by Mike Barlow. New Walk Editions. £5. ISBN 9781999802653

Mike Barlow’s “Some Kind of Ghost” focuses on those seemingly small moments that nonetheless create lasting impressions and memories. In the casual, long titled poem, “There’s that scene in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy first realises the deaf and dumb Chief Bromden can hear and speak”

“and Jack Nicholson carries the moment – only a moment in the movie, a moment in which he doesn’t move while everything changes

and I’m away then to my own shifts and shivers, moments I’ve been stilled while the pulse jumps or the gut drops its stone. A missed beat’s invisible in quiet conversations where the something or nothing someone says carries a tectonic nudge

and you’re left with the kitsch painting on a café wall or a white Mercedes with a parking scrape along its side, irrelevant images fixed in mind by the logic of the soul, markers for a moment you suddenly fell out of love, or heard your own name in the third person”

The poem ends on the image, “moments run into one another explaining to yourself who you really are”

The moments that trigger memories of significance events accumulate into a life’s narration and explanation. Moments that others dismiss or overlook because they’ve not realised the import of that throw-a-way comment or gesture which has the listener or observer sent back to a point in time where something trivial has become life-changing. The exploration of these moments is not confined to the poet’s life. “Six Shouts for the Missing” includes,

Ella who finally left home at sixteen with nothing
but a pocketful of change and the rag doll of her childhood.
May she find the latchkey in her purse one day
and courage enough to use it.
A shout, a keepsafe shout

Les, fitter who didn’t fit chucked the factory job, his mates,
the lies and moved away where he could be
Lesley, shaven legs, coiffed hair, skirt and blouse,
the bare truth of lipstick and mascara
A shout for her. A shout for her.

Readers never find out why Ella left home with loose change and a childhood toy, but the narrator hopes she’ll find her way back. This hope assumes that there was love in the home she left, but happy children tend not to run away. It’s difficult to disagree with the narrator who wants Ella to keep safe, but I have concerns about urging a teenager to go back to a place that might not have been a home. The misfit Lesley is on safer ground, leaving a life to become the person she really is.

In “Plums”, the end comes after an uncle calls for his son who died fighting in Korea and dismisses the nephew who does respond to his call,

So I slow down, tip-toe the long hall to the scullery.
And there’s Aunt Dora washing plums. I knock
on the old plank door and hold my breath.
She’d always ignore me when she knew
I was making things up but this time she turns,
hands me a bowl of glistening Victorias to stone.

Aunt Dora is an ally here, offering the nephew not only something to occupy him, but a sense of solidarity. She knows he’s been rejected by the uncle and perhaps is carrying the burden of never being able to live up to the lost son.

Sylvia Plath once describe poetry as “moment’s monuments” and here Mike Barlow has created a series of monuments to moments that carry a significant weight. The poems’ colloquial tones and vocabulary belie their import.

Emma Lee’s debut collection was Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, UK 2015), she co-edited Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge, (Five Leaves, UK, 2015), reviews for The Blue Nib, The High Window, The Journal, London Grip and Sabotage Reviews. She blogs at Her latest collection is The Significance of a Dress published by Arachne Press.

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